Folkestone’s Creative Quarter: Why so negative?

Another month, another set of negative headlines about life for businesses down in the epicentre of Folkestone’s ongoing regeneration, the Creative Quarter.

There was disappointment earlier in March when it emerged the team behind the planned restaurant at the former Earl Grey pub, Max’s House, were pulling out. Reported in the local press as a ‘major setback’, it seems the truth may be rather more banal: that those behind the venture were simply a little too keen to trumpet the news of their plans, Facebook page and all, before pen had even been put to paper on the deal.

I imagine the Creative Foundation, the body behind the multimillion-pound regeneration of Folkestone’s old town, would have preferred the potential tenants to have kept a lower profile and a lid on their ambitious plans until the deal was actually done.

The fact the site in the Old High Street, which has been renovated to a high standard by Thanet-based contractors DJ Ellis, has not now opened as a bar and restaurant is of course a real shame for everyone associated with the area – 0ther businesses in the neighbourhood are keen to create a critical mass of venues and shops to draw in the punters – but it still seems there are some who are worryingly keen to talk the area down.

Quoted by the Folkestone Herald in the wake of the news that Max’s House would not be opening its doors after all, the owner of now-closed Old High Street shop Fairy Sensations blamed a lack of passing trade for the decision to shut her doors for good in favour of running an online-only operation.

It’s obviously a shame when any business struggles for whatever reason, but I believe it is misleading to paint the woes of individual businesses as symptoms of wider problems with the Creative Quarter and its long-term role in the regeneration of Folkestone. Can any specialist business really be sure of surviving in a bricks-and-mortar shop in the internet age, when competitors trading exclusively online enjoy such dramatically-lower overheads?

Personally I find the suggestion that “passing trade is non-existent” in the Old High Street to be frankly ludicrous. There are plenty of businesses thriving in the Creative Quarter, and when I pass through each day I always see people walking in the Old High Street, browsing the shop windows and stopping off in the cafes for a drink and a bite to eat.

Perhaps those whose ventures struggle in the Creative Quarter should question whether they really had a viable proposition on their hands rather than simply seeking to blame the location for their troubles?

It’s also worth remembering just how much investment is being poured into the Creative Quarter during this time of financial uncertainty. Investment which is supporting local jobs, improving a once run-down neighbourhood and creating new infrastructure which will already be in place once the recovery comes and growth returns to the economy, both locally and nationally.

Last month I obtained information from the Creative Foundation about its investment in regeneration in the Creative Quarter during 2011. In total it is expected that £2.85 million will be spent on projects completed in the Creative Quarter this year alone, creating quality accommodation and workplaces to be offered at competitive rents.

A spokesman for the Creative Foundation told me: “The purchase of all buildings has been funded by The Roger De Haan Charitable Trust, which also pays for the rebuilding and refurbishment work that is taking place.

“Once completed, the buildings pass into the control of the Creative Foundation on a 125 year lease, an arrangement that is designed to provide a sustainable model that will encourage a stable environment for creative businesses to grow and flourish over time.

“You will appreciate that given that there are no public funds involved in any of these projects the individual contracts with builders and sub-contractors are subject to confidentiality. It is the Creative Foundation’s policy to invite competitive tenders for each project from a range of contractors within East Kent.”

I think that last sentence is very important. I asked the Foundation to indicate specifically where the architects and contractors involved in each of the major refurbishment projects currently underway in the Creative Quarter are based.

At the Brewery Tap in Tontine Street, a former public house now being converted into a bar/restaurant with office and living space above, the architects are Pringle Richards Sharratt of London and the contractors are DJ Ellis of Thanet. At the Earl Grey in the Old High Street the architects are CDP of Canterbury and the contractors are DJ Ellis of Thanet.

Down on South Street at Kathmandu, a former club being renovated as a bar/restaurant with studios and living accommodation above, it’s an all Folkestone job, with architects Godden Allen Lawn and contractors Jenner Construction. Two other projects in the Old High Street are also entirely in the hands of architects and contractors from Folkestone and Thanet.

This investment in the future of our town, which does not involve a single penny from the public purse, is not only transforming a large number of unoccupied and derelict buildings but also keeping local people in work during a downturn which has left many in areas like Folkestone and Thanet, especially those working in construction and associated trades, struggling to find and hold down a steady wage.

It’s easy to come up with negative headlines about delayed projects – Max Palmer has, after all, said he still hopes to open at the Earl Grey in future – and specialised businesses who have struggled to find a market for their products. But none of this should obscure the fact progress is being made in the Creative Quarter every single day, that the reason the area around the Old High Street resembles a building site is because it is.

Millions of pounds of private investment in a deprived area of Folkestone? Young men and women kept in work by projects completed with the use of firms from East Kent? The creation of high-quality buildings to house new enterprises and those who come to our town to establish them? If an increasingly-vocal minority in Folkestone still want to believe this is evidence of failure, please could they tell us what they would do instead?

Further reading:

When the chips are down: Andy Burnett and the Creative Quarter

Nick Spurrier: Development of the Creative Quarter

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8 thoughts on “Folkestone’s Creative Quarter: Why so negative?

  1. If the Council offered free parking after 6pm on a Friday until 11pm on a Sunday people would flock to Folkestone, many would use the empty car parks by the Harbour and the Leas Lifts, in fact the one next to the Leas Lift was closed one day last week when I was in that area. If they park down by the Harbour they can walk up through the Old High Street. People would come to spend the whole day or even the weekend here in Folkestone, they would spend money in our town on shopping and food and drink. Surely a full car park which may make no money for the parking for 48 hours but will create income in our town is better than an empty car park that generates nothing?

  2. Exactly right! This really needs saying loudly in Folkestone. What is the Herald so determinedly opposed to this regeneration, what on earth is the downside.? It ems that to The Herald the best we should hope for is the Oafish Andy in his squalid little fish bar

  3. The comments by Fairy Sensations are inaccurate to say the least. There is very good footfall in the Old High Street but retailers must sell things people want to buy. This was obviously not the case with Fairy Sensations and other businesses that have folded in the CQ and elsewhere. A basic fact of business life. Also these shops often failed to open to their advertised hours. I have people travelling to my shop from all over the South East. Sell interesting goods, provide good service and people will come to you!

  4. Rhys, thank you for providing a public voice to this argument. I did ask either Mike Sims – who pens many of the negative articles or Simon Finlay – the editor who tells Mike what to write, if they were prepared to come and have a five minute chat with me as to why they are both hell bent on damaging business in the CF, but unfortunately neither hack was man enough to step out of their ivory tower and back up their amateur tabloid antics.
    The sad thing is that if Simon Finlay and Roger De Haan have underlying issues with each other, why can they not sort it out like adults, rather than Simon using his honoured position as editor of a potentially successful local paper as a public medium to have a pop at everything Roger is trying to do, and in the process do nothing but damage to our business in the mean time.

  5. Hi Rhys, my name is ben spalding, i was due to be the head chef of Max’s house, no one is more disappointed than i was that it didn’t open- unfortunately Max’s actions caused this situation- and we both made the decision the other day to move on from the project, this saddens me more than anyone having poured 6 months of my life into it and moved my family to folkestone.
    I was so excited to get folkestone on the map for food and offer a different dining experience to “sarge’s” new restaurant “Rocksalt”.
    To your comments on the facebook site, it’s very easy to point out now about it going up without funding in place, but the site was deliberately set up months before with a positive mindset on this restaurant opening and being a success, it would of been pointless to of waited to the last minute as i was hugely concerned about securing week trade- obviously weekends would be full but that wouldn’t support the business long term.
    It of course is hugely embarassing not to be able to have the chance to back up what we suggested but that is the way things have panned out. So i would like to state that i will not be any part of Max’s house in the future and it is very unlikely to ever materialise under Max.
    But i really agree with your post- it sums up the situation excellently about the street. But do look forward to “rocksalt” opening. Mark is a brilliant chef- so not all bad! Just sorry i couldn’t of made a mark too..

    Thanks
    Ben

  6. My husband, like me, grew up in the country and when we came to buy our first house we couldn’t afford the village in which five generations of his family had lived. As he commutes to London the only essential was a good rail connection.

    We did some research and moved to Folkestone in 1999 when the sewerage plant (for clean beaches), shopping mall and high speed train were all just possible plans.

    I do feel that Folkestone is a town with huge potential. I think it needs more than just gallery after gallery. It needs events to which residents and tourists alike can flock, which aren’t elitist, like craft fairs, Farmers’ markets, Sunday markets, seafood festivals and fun runs.

    Folkestone residents need to feel proud of their town and it should be inclusive, not a place where Primark meets Guardian reader.

    I’m hopeful however

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